Google will launch a censored search service for Chinese users this week that will block results the local government disapproves of.
The company said it decided to make the move into web censorship because it felt providing some sort of service in China was better than providing none at all.
Google.cn, will block results of Internet searches deemed likely to offend Beijing, but will tell users the search has been blocked because it is politically sensitive. Pornography will also be blocked on the site, as it is in several other countries.
The move will likely irritate die-hard fans of Google's anti-corporate philosophy "Don't Be Evil" and could raise protests from a growing number of organisations sensitive to free speech issues in China. Microsoft has been criticised for censorship in China, and Yahoo Inc came under fire late last year for turning emails over to Chinese authorities that helped land a local journalist a ten-year jail sentence.
"In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on Google.cn, in response to local law, regulation or policy," said Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel at Google, in a statement. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information - or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information - is more inconsistent with our mission."
A fierce internal debate took place over the issue, but ultimately the company decided to play by Beijing's rules so it could compete in China, said one source.
All companies offering Internet services in China must comply with local law or face being shut off by authorities in Beijing, who also monitor data crossing international communications networks. Google has operated a search engine aimed at users in China from the US for a while, but decided to open a server centre inside China to speed up searches, since Chinese government firewalls and censors mean download times from outside the huge country tend to be slow.
Google also faces stiff competition from China's number one search provider, Baidu.com, which displays a minimalist home page similar to Google's.
To balance what can often be heavy handed censorship from Beijing, Google intends to disclose to users when information has been removed from its search results in response to local laws and regulations, as it does in other countries such as Germany, France, and the US. The company also plans to move slowly on introducing other services in China, such as Gmail and Blogger, to make sure it can balance the user experience with its legal responsibilities.